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Doctorow and Sterling Cyber-Riffing at SXSW 140

Bruce Sterling is the sort of writer who invites his audience to an open house with "anyone they'd like and anything they can carry." He's also busy in his non-writing life keeping up with the resurrection and commemoration of dead media and not-dead-yet online freedoms. Fellow online agitator and decorated science fiction writer Cory Doctorow seems more of an Ernster Mensch; Doctorow points out that he's a writer second, activist first. When these two started a freewheeling discussion ("intellectual cyber riffing," as Sterling described it) on The Death of Scarcity Tuesday afternoon, the quotable quotes were everywhere. Read on for the ones I jotted down, and a link to some more.

Within five minutes Doctorow was describing the common ground that economists of all stripes might find in a world of increasingly information flow and decentralization, and Sterling was questioning conventional wisdom on Google, file sharing, and other sacred cows of the techno-elite. This public conversation in a smallish but packed meeting room in Austin's Convention Center served as an endcap on the Interactive portion of this year's
South by Southwest Interactive conference, and probably crystalized a lot of what conference attendees had on their mind between panel sessions and parties. Below are some of the thoughts that came out in the course of the Sterling & Doctorow Show. (And Sorry, but the open house is over now. Thanks, Bruce.)

The worth of Information:

Sterling: "All of this circles around the central declaration of S. Brand -- 'Information wants to be free.' Yet, Information also wants to be expensive. ... I have to wonder, what would happen if sheep actually did shit grass -- would mutton be free? ... Doesn't [widespread file trading] crowd out what was formerly a competitive menu of available choices? What if you just can't sell music any more? Nobody's going to go down to [Austin record store] Waterloo, nobody's going to hang out with them afterward. ..."

Doctorow: "Whether Kantian or Marxist, the most valuable stuff isnt the world is the stuff we want to concern ourselves with, because when stuff is really valuable, it becomes scarce. ... [by contrast], the Napster ethic is, 'Be as selfish as you possibly can -- the more crap you download, the more crap there is for everyone to download.' ... Code is a little like speech, a little like a tractor. Keynes and Marx both talked about speech [being different from] a tractor; Code is a little like speech, and a little like tractors. When you've got something that's both speech and a tractor, you've got something really interesting."

Napster, the RIAA and file trading:

Sterling: "[Napster is] a kind of profoundly undemocratic technical fait accompli. 'Look at this neat gizmo that we geeks built while you weren't working. We geeks accidentally ate your industry.' [This is a] techno-imperative market argument which I don't think really makes all that much sense in a stagnant monopoly ... where is the steamroller going, I don't see it going anywhere particular, it's just abolishing other people's money. Does Napster give anybody money for a reelection campaign? Do they have a friendly judge? Is there somebody to sue?"

"What would the music scene look like if the industry disappeared? I imagine things like the Royal family paying for the production of Handel's Water Music. "

Product Interfaces.

Doctorow: "[...] That's what why we have wrappers. If you have good stuff in a crappy interface, somebody will build a wrapper around it. ... This revolution is ongoing -- Travelocity may suck, but it's a lot better than SABRE. This process of wrapping is going on every day."

Sterling: "I think that the crappy interface is one of the reasons for the power of the computer revolution. People are trapped."


Sterling: "It's a beauty contest, not a credibility contest. ... How is [google's reference-count system] different from turning on TV and seeing Dean Kamen talking on 22 channels about this revolutionary scooter? What I want to see ... the kid in Left Elbow, Kazakhstan, you give him an 802.11 Linux box, running google [and left to play]. In 4 years, I want to see him matriculate. [Laughter]

"... Now if we had an idiosyncratic version of google, that was sort of a Bruce Sterling google ... 'Well, Bruce, here are the things you're going to find really great today!" you know. There are things they they always claim on Amazon. 'So you've bought this book, ok? You might want to try this CD.' I've never bought any CDs on Amazon, they always think I have the worst possible taste in music. No luck over there at all.

"People gather together in little tidepools and trust, otherwise there would be no limits [on stagnation]. You'd simply say 'Oh, what's everybody using? Oh, Apple IIe, OK, that's it, end problem, Apple IIe, boy, that's for me ... Macintosh? Never heard of it!"

Doctorow: "I think the problem is that, as a society we've consistently choose the crappier and more available thing over the more beautiful and less available thing."

The last 5 years:

Doctorow: "In the last 5 years, Linux became useable. In the last 5 years we finally got. In the last 5 years we got Tivo. In the last five years we got 802.11 widespread. I mean, my life has been changed."

Sterling: "You mean, 'that fantastic innovation we saw until about 5 years ago.' ... I think [Innovation has] slowed to a crawl, and moving in a slow reverse, you're not going to see a lot of major innovation, outside of Linux --which is in danger of being outlawed. The 802.11b [phenomenon], same thing -- there are people who sit around all day trying to demonize 802.11b users and say that they're stealing -- 'the Parasitic Grid.' It's a social hack, but because of that, they're very vulnerable to political counter-hacks. They're not the same as genuine technical innovation. That's a difficulty."

Cultural spread and cultural inertia:

Doctorow: "There's an amazing story about the day someone sent the first hotmail message with 'Get your free email account at' at the bottom to India. The traffic statistics the next morning, they quintupled overnight, on the strength of one email."

On Copy Protection, the RIAA/MPAA, et cetera:

Sterling: "When will the U.S. snap? What will it take to put the genie back in the bottle, how many times will the genie have to be hit on the back of the head? What if someone accidentally breaks the bottle with his baton? What are we going to be left with that commands value? What can't we copy?"

Doctorow: "By an amazing coincidence, last week Congress held hearings about [copy protection in hardware] I think it's actually possible, I think it's actually possible, but the social consequence is quite horrendous. When Turing machines are outlawed, when universal computers that can do anything are no longer allowed to exist, then that kind of thing, I think the innovation we've seen over the last 20 years [will end].

This being SXSW Interactive, quite a few people in the audience were taking notes. Krow put his on LiveJournal, and I hope others will link to theirs below.

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Doctorow and Sterling Cyber-Riffing at SXSW

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